The In-Between

From the care of teens to emerging adulthood

Should Everyone Go To College?

Higher wages? Unnecessary debt? Or is there more to consider than finances?

Emerging adults have difficult decisions to make regarding higher education. Proponents of college education tell us a degree means higher wages, while skeptics say educational expenses and delays in earning wages make college a poor investment. 

It’s true: College is increasingly expensive and stressful as students try to compete with greater numbers of their peers to get into reputable schools, they face mental health problems at alarming rates, graduates face crushing debt, and the job market for college grads is bleak. Why should any of us want to endure college?

Is higher education even a good investment? College is usually not job training- with notable exceptions like teaching degrees, engineering, and nursing. Studying English or art or math is rarely enough to qualify new graduates for specific careers. And even for those who graduate with credentials qualifying them for jobs, successfully graduating college never guarantees employment. Why bother with an expensive bachelor’s degree when technical schools train students for careers with less investment of time or money?

In order to weigh to pros and cons, emerging adults need to consider the benefits of a college education beyond career and finances. College may be a step toward your growing maturity.

Psychological benefits of college:

A place to explore the self

One of the major tasks of young adulthood is “finding” oneself. But it’s hard to find yourself while steeped in the identity the family assigns. Likewise, it can be difficult to explore self-identity while working at a low paying job and struggling to pay the bills. For many, college provides an opportunity to explore the self away from family, without all the pressures of adult responsibility. Attending traditional college can be a chance to break away from parents and explore one’s self while still benefitting from parental support. Young adults discover their beliefs separate from the family, and then build relationship styles and vocations. They can experience a sense of independence without taking on the full range of pressures of adult responsibility. 

A place to grow before solidly setting down roots for an adult life

College often serves as a stage in between adolescence of independent adulthood. College students take on some of the responsibilities of independence, like making meals and managing time. But they don’t have to make big life choices, like choosing careers, until later. College provides a phase in between adolescence and adulthood, neatly demarcated by the years in school. By the end of the education, young adults are more ready to face big life decisions.

Learning how to learn, rather than being taught

In high school, students are often fed information by teachers and then asked to repeat it back for exams. In college, learning is an increasingly solitary activity. Students attend classes and then read and prepare for exams without much guidance. Alone in the library, students learn which information is preferred test material. They structure their study hours without many daily assignments as guideposts. College students teach themselves the material. 

The opportunity to become a lifetime learner

As students choose a course of study through the selection of a major, they gain the opportunity to become lifetime learners. Colleges and universities afford students the chance to explore the concepts for which they have an interest or an aptitude rather than requiring every student to learn foundational material. Many students become more engaged and excited learners when they focus in their interests.

Exposure to students from diverse cultural backgrounds

Colleges and universities draw students from diverse backgrounds. Students come from urban and rural areas near and far, and there commonly students from a variety of foreign lands. Exposure to cultural diversity can enhance tolerance and international cultural awareness, positives for any well-adjusted young adult.

College is about more than academics, but it still may not be the best route for every young adult. As young adults consider whether college a good investment, you may also consider how you can explore your self-identity, learn to learn independently, and have exposure to cultural diversity through venues other than college. Many young adults mature through other means, such as time in the armed services, living away from parents and working, and learning cultural values from the family.

 

Melissa Deuter, M.D., is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio.

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